Israel Launches Innovative Online Sign Language Lexicon in Four Languag

October 26, 2015

3 min read

On Wednesday, Israel launched its first online sign-language lexicon to help Israelis as well as Palestinians learn how to communicate in sign language.  The lexicon allows a user to input any word in Hebrew, Russian, English or Arabic and receive the Israeli sign language sign for that word. While the lexicon is not a proper way to learn the entire Hebrew sign language, it is a useful tool through which people can learn how to communicate with each other.

The lexicon, which can be accessed online, is the work of the Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel (IADPI). The institute created the lexicon over a period of  a few years in an effort to consolidate and update a number of pre-existing computerized dictionaries.

The project was made possible by generous donations of Alex Garfeld, and another donation made in the name of Professor Miriam Schlesinger, who worked very closely with the institute. “Professor Schlesinger was very dedicated to helping the cause of furthering the inclusion of the deaf community into regular Israeli society,” said Elias Kabakov in an interview with Breaking Israel News.

“People think you can learn a whole language online, but for that you need to learn from other people. There needs to be an interaction,” said Kabakov. However, that shouldn’t deter people from using it. “The site is trying to help the Israeli population gain a better understanding of sign language so that more Israelis can interact with those in the deaf community on a more regular basis,” Kabakov explained.

Though there is no official registry of people belonging to the “deaf and hard of hearing” community in Israel, the Ministry of Welfare estimates that 360,000 people fall into the category, including elderly who have lost much of their hearing.

Currently, the Institute has 15,000 users who participate in some function each month. Kabakov stated that the issues facing the deaf and hard-of-hearing community are much more common than one might expect. According to Kabakov, roughly seven percent of the world’s population, including elderly people, fall into this category.

Kabakov illustrated that this lexicon differs from other online Hebrew sign-language platforms such as ‘Siman-tov’ or ‘Signpedia’ in a number of ways. Firstly, the Institute’s lexicon uses advanced technology to present an extensive collection of signs that are used on a daily basis by the deaf and hard-of-hearing community living in Israel.

Second, the lexicon is searchable by letters and words in all four languages, allowing it to be far more user-friendly than its Hebrew-only counterparts. “All that the user has to do is to type the word, and a video clip showing the sign will appear,” said Kabakov proudly.

Kabakov described the intense level of work that went into building the site. “Our site has over 3,000 items and it is translated into the four major spoken language in Israel,” he said. “That translation took a painstakingly long time and our team slaved over it, in an effort to get it right.”

“It was very complex,” Kabakov continued. “Certain words have different signs to connote different meanings, for example the Hebrew word lavo – to come, provided us with a big challenge. In Israeli sign language, the context of the word changes the sign. That is true for many of the words we have on the site.”

Kabakov explained the due to the nature and complexities of the project, the Institute had to hire linguists, sign language experts and spoken language experts to work together in creating the project and allow for a smooth interface. “We had to find people who are fluent in Israeli sign language as well as in the other language as well. Those people are rare,” said Kabakov.

Some of the other products that the Institute offers to help Israelis familiarize themselves with sign language include dictionaries which are divided into topics such as high school, Judaism, words for crisis situations, and others, all of which have been incorporated into the lexicon.

IADPI Executive Director Yael Kakun told Israeli news sources that “the lexicon and its accessibility will allow every citizen of Israel to provide minimal aid in real time and learn work-related terms in the language spoken by people who do not hear.”

“Sign language brings people together,” said Kabakov. “While Israelis, and Palestinians, or even Israeli Arabs may not share the same language, sign language is regional, hence Palestinians, Druze, and Bedouin as well as Israelis all speak the same sign language. I can talk to Palestinians who are deaf, while Israelis and Palestinians who do not speak sign language often don’t have a common language.”

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